AMES - Forced to replace a pair of WNBA draft picks, Iowa State likely won't fly high on many pundits' preseason polls this season.
Though it's only fitting for the Cyclones, who are led by a somewhat unheralded and soft-spoken star, Hallie Christofferson.
"She is maybe one of the best players in the country that people don't know about. She's very understated," ISU women's coach Bill Fennelly said of Christofferson at Iowa State women's basketball media day at the Sukup Basketball Complex Wednesday.
T-R PHOTO BY TYLER STRAND
Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly talks about the upcoming season at the Cyclones media day in the Sukup Basketball Complex Wednesday. Fennelly enters his 19th season in Ames with an overall record of 396-182.
"She'll probably score more points than words spoken in her four years here."
The 6-foot-3 senior forward let her play do the talking last year and scored a team-best 15.6 points per game to go along with 6.7 rebounds helping her earn a spot on the preseason all-Big 12 Team. The Hamlin native was second in the league last year in free-throw percentage at 86.2 percent, while also leading the Cyclones in field goal percentage (51.6).
Fennelly will employ a four-guard attack this year after losing seniors Chelsea Poppens and Anna Prins. The frontcourt duo combined for 25.7 points and 15 rebounds per game last year before ascending to the WNBA, though Christofferson is ready to take on a more prominent role.
"It's going to start with No. 5 and this team is built around her," said Fennelly, who enters his 19th season at the helm after guiding the Cyclones to a 24-9 (12-6 Big 12) campaign and 13th NCAA Tournament appearance.
"It's a fun thing to do because she accepts that challenge and she's good enough to handle it. ... She's one of those kind of people that every single day she figures out a way to get better."
Though Christofferson, a unanimous 2012 all-Big 12 First Team selection, won't shoulder the load alone.
Juniors Brynn Williamson and Nikki Moody will also play expanded roles as Fennelly believes the biggest jump in a player's career is made between the sophomore and junior seasons. And that concept applies to both Cyclone guards.
Moody was fourth on the squad with 8.4 points a contest and the primary ball handler last year - dishing out a team-high 238 assists. Williamson was the team's long distance specialist connecting on 68 treys at a 35 percent clip and chipped in 8.3 points per game.
While the Cyclones will make the necessary adjustments to account for their lack of size, several of their fundamental focuses remain the same. The Cyclones will continue to fire from beyond the arc where they finished 18th in the nation last year at 7.6 triples per game, though Fennelly would like to see their efficiency improve after the team finished outside the top-50 in 3-pointer percentage (.330). ISU must also address its turnover issues after giving up possession 17.2 times a game - compared to 14.1 by its opponents.
With just three players standing taller than 6-foot, the Cyclones will try to counter with better team speed and a more tenacious defense.
"Every year you have to offset something," said Fennelly. "I don't think we can rebound the ball as we did. You don't lose 15 rebounds a game and expect to do that again. But hopefully we'll be able to beat people off the bounce a little better and maybe create a little more with our defense. We've never been a real up-in-your-face defensive team and I think we're going to have to be a little more aggressive defensively."
Moody and Williamson led the defense with 44 and 42 steals respectively, while sophomore Nicole Blaskowsky added 21 to go with 6.6 points per outing off the bench last year.
Practice opens Friday and Fennelly isn't set on who will make the starting lineup just yet, though he is confident his two freshman guards - Jadda Buckley and Seanna Johnson - will play a lot of minutes.
"Jadda just loves to play," Fennelly said of the Mason City grad. "She'll add another ball handler, which we desperately need. She'll add a scorer. ... She can defend at a Big 12 level - at least."
While the backcourt has several options, the emergence of another strong presence in the post will go a long way in determining the Cyclones' success.
South Tama grad Madison Baier, the team's tallest player at 6-foot-4, could be that player. Fennelly said its up to the sophomore to make that leap.
"The decision is in her court - literally and figuratively. She could be a very, very important player on our team," Fennelly said of the sophomore, who played in 13 games last year after returning from an ankle injury.
"We need a backup center. She might be playing the most important five to six minutes of the game of anyone on our team."
The Big 12's most important player over the past few years - Baylor three-time All-American Brittney Griner - has moved on to the WNBA. Her absence levels the Big 12 landscape and has Fennelly believing the conference is up for grabs this year.
"Our league is different, there's no question," said Fennelly. "There might not be a top-10 team that can win a national championship, but there's a lot of really good teams. ... It will be a much more wide open race than in the past."
West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma bring back the most experience, while three-time all-Big 12 point guard Odyssey Sims keeps Baylor as a viable threat said Fennelly.
"The title is up for grabs," said Christofferson. "Anybody can come and (win) on any given night."
And Christofferson believes the Cyclones belong in the conversation.
"I do have confidence in us," Christofferson said. "It takes everybody. It's just not going to be one person, everybody has to be on the same page and pushing forward."
While the Cyclone star isn't one to talk up her abilities, her teammates don't hesitate to explain what the Exira grad brings to the team.
"Everything," said Moody. "She's a rebounder, she's a defensive stopper, she gets steals, she scores - almost all our points. Hallie really is everything to this team."
Redefining their team around Christofferson is still a work in progress. And that daily task starts Friday.
"A thing we talk about every day is embracing the process. There's a process to be good," said Fennelly. "If we can do that then we'll have the kind of team that our fans enjoy watching and that our fans deserve."